After the stormy five-hour meeting at which the Board of Education voted to terminate the contract of Joseph Fernandez as New York City schools chancellor, Deputy Mayor Norman Steisel shook his head over the “public execution.” The next day a New York Newsday editorial echoed Steisel’s words; the board, the editors said, had “guillotined” Fernandez. The metaphor of revolution is not so farfetched. Fernandez and the forces he represented were indeed overthrown—not by the seven-member central board and mayoral politics, as the press repeatedly charged, but by a grassroots effort on the part of an angry citizenry frustrated by a system that seemed blind to their concerns.

The populist revolt against an archaic, unresponsive, and, yes, elitist institution is in many ways reminiscent of the one that took place in Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville 25 years ago. Like the events of 1968, it is a revolt that implicitly calls into question the legitimacy and authority of the central school bureaucracy. We are beginning to hear some buzzing about how to restructure a system that has eaten up five chancellors in ten years and that wastes precious time and money on matters having little to do with the serious problems of overcrowding, violence, and poor achievement that plague the city’s schools. A closer look at the events leading up to Fernandez’s fall highlights some of the dangers and opportunities faced by those considering how to restructure the city’s school system.

Fernandez arrived in New York City from Miami in January 1990 to a collective, happy sigh of relief. Here was the man—vigorous, brash, and innovative—to breathe life into a huge, moribund system. His first hundred days seemed proof of his gifts: He swept away “building tenure” for principals, worked to loosen the grip of a pampered and entrenched custodial union, and attacked corrupt school boards and superintendents. Bolstered by nearly total support from the city’s newspapers, political establishment, and apparently, the public, the chancellor was in an ideal position to play the role of the out-of-town sheriff come to shoot up all the bad guys and bring the town a bit of peace and sanity.

The very qualities that had made Fernandez such a promising leader, however, proved his undoing. Within a year of becoming chancellor, he introduced a plan to distribute condoms in the city’s high schools. For reasons known only to him, he decided to dispense with the niceties of private, conciliatory discussions on such a delicate issue; some central board members first heard about the plan when journalists called them to ask for their statements. Still, in February 1991, the measure was passed after a bitter debate, but only by a 4-to-3 vote. Queens representative Carol Gresser, a mother and one-time PTA president who had opposed the condom distribution plan, proposed instituting a parental opt-out clause similar to the ones now in place in other urban schools around the country. It appeared at first that Fernandez was willing to live with this, but at the last minute both the mayor and the chancellor brought pressure on Westina Matthews, a mayoral appointee, and Ninfa Segarra, the wavering Bronx representative, to oppose the opt-out provision. In September 1991 it was defeated, again by a 4-to-3 vote.

According to conventional wisdom, the 4-to-3 breakdown was just about writ in cement. The four members in the majority—two blacks, mayoral appointees Matthews and Carl McCall, and two Hispanics, Segarra and Manhattan representative Luis Reyes—were thought to be a reliable voting bloc. The three dissenters, representing Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, were assumed to be effectively powerless. With Mayor Dinkins’s office whispering in one ear and the newspapers whispering in the other, Fernandez was able to treat the minority as a mere nuisance, out of touch with the enlightened and progressive social programs that were about to become the focus of his tenure. When angry demonstrators began to appear in front of 110 Livingston carrying signs reading “Jews Say No,” “Muslims Say No,” and “Christians Say No,” almost everyone in the bureaucracy and on the metro desks shrugged them off as religious extremists, hardly worth noting.

But a May 1992 skirmish over the chancellor’s AIDS education program proved to be a turning point in what few recognized at the time as a brewing civil war. As Fernandez’s detractors on the board began to question the details of his program, the chancellor snapped at them for attempting to “micromanage” school affairs, a charge dutifully repeated in a New York Times editorial. What the Times, Fernandez, and the mayor’s office, which remained firmly behind the chancellor on these matters, understated was that a number of the recommendations of the program were, well, a little touchy. Fourth graders—that is, nine-year-olds—were to be taught about condoms and spermicidal creams, while fifth graders would be treated to discussions of oral and anal sex. When a measure was introduced to ensure that outside groups participating in the program would stress abstinence as the preferred method of preventing AIDS, Ninfa Segarra, who later said she was sickened by the thought of her own children hearing the very lessons she was being asked to approve, voted with the other outer borough representatives and tipped the balance.

The response to Segarra’s vote and the events that followed offer in microcosm a sad lesson about the way a huge city bureaucracy polarizes political and ideological interests and thereby assumes a starring role in the Grand Guignol of New York’s newspapers. Segarra—who says she simply believes that condom distribution for sexually active teens is a very different sort of issue from explicit sexual details in an elementary school curriculum—was treated as the city’s Mata Hari, traitor to minority children and to progressive ideas about education. Since she had tailed in a bid to become board president, losing to mayoral appointee Carl McCall in 1991, the case was made that she must have been driven by personal ambition and vengeance against the mayor.

In the political hysterics that followed Segarra’s vote, her critics would not allow that conscience or reason may have played even the smallest part in her decision. Fernando Ferrer, the Bronx borough president who had appointed Segarra to the board, angrily demanded her resignation; Mayor Dinkins echoed his call. Fernandez called her a “political prostitute,” proving that even those who preach from the pulpit of respect are not above a sexist attack now and again. It became open season on Segarra, even among the sisterhood: Andrea Peyser of the New York Post would later brand her “Ninfa-maniac”; Fernandez’s epithet of “political prostitute,” Peyser explained, was “insulting—to hookers.” Two months after the abstinence vote, Fernandez’s chief spokesman, James Vlasto, issued a memorandum to the press in which he declared that “the dubious action by the board is clearly bent on burying the next generation.”

This ugly polarization, which can only undermine serious decisions about education, was fueled by a press that may have helped write rather than report history. Editorialists and columnists stridently attacked the board majority; even news accounts dubbed them the “Gang of Four,” though the previous majority that favored Fernandez’s policies had merited no such unfriendly sobriquet. Understandably, the members of the “gang” were forced into the same bunker, despite their personal and, on many issues, political differences. “It was a matter of survival,” Segarra has said. Thus were the lines drawn: the ignorant, corrupt outer boroughs (“those places where people actually send their children to public school,” as the Observer’s Terry Golway put it) versus the enlightened, progressive elite, mostly from Manhattan.

This elite, which repeatedly accused the outer borough representatives of “playing politics,” had a political agenda of its own, which culminated in the most bitter battle of Fernandez’s tenure. For some time, representatives from the mayor’s office had been meeting with gay and lesbian rights groups who wanted a say in the board’s multicultural guide, then in the planning stages. According to a Times report, Dr. Marjorie Hill, director of the Mayor’s Office for the Gay and Lesbian Community, “led a delegation” of gays and lesbians to meet with the chancellor who then assigned a deputy chancellor, Amina Abdur-Rahman, as his liaison to them. With repeated letters of support from the mayor’s office and after gay representatives threatened to “go public with their frustration,” a lesbian teacher named Elissa Weindling was asked to join the project, entitled, to lasting infamy, “Children of the Rainbow.”

These political pressures on the school system, as it turned out, had come at a most inopportune time: Weindling climbed on board as the multicultural department was developing its curriculum for the first grade (though every grade would have one in the future). The guide’s mandate that teachers stress multicultural diversity, including gay and lesbian lifestyles, “in all curricular areas” when teaching six-year-olds looked ludicrous. Had the mayor’s office intervened when, say, the ninth grade curriculum was being developed, politics would probably have prevailed over education, and to far less outcry. But politics has its own timetable, which in the current system, at any rate, seems to supersede that of children.

As the furor over the Rainbow Curriculum intensified, Fernandez fought his battle, not as an educator concerned with the delicate relationship between schools and families, but as a crusader who branded his detractors as virulent enemies of a great cause. His supporters first tried painting the Catholic Church as the central command of his opponents, a task made feasible by the Catholic makeup of the most vocally rebellious local board, District 24 in Queens, and by the press’s convenient soft-pedaling of the objections of other, less homogenous boards. Fernandez accused his opponents of a “malicious, highly organized campaign to distort [the curriculum’s] contents.” Days after this first shrouded reference to organized Catholic opposition, the Times published an article by Sam Roberts which attempted to confirm the chancellor’s view. But Roberts’s evidence was thin: Two lawyers who represented District 24 had on occasion worked for the Archdiocese, and John Cardinal O’Connor, who had praised Segarra for refusing to resign, was planning to officiate at her wedding. Fernandez’s accusations later took in a wider ken: “This is a highly organized group of the extreme religious right wing,” he told National Public Radio, perhaps alluding to the Latino Pentecostalists who had also passionately opposed the curriculum.

The truth is that the opposition to the Rainbow Curriculum—as well as to the AIDS education and condom programs—was far broader than either Fernandez, the press, or most Manhattan politicians wanted to admit. Some of the opposition was based on religious belief, but it was hardly limited to Catholics: Jews, Muslims, and Christians of other denominations were also saying no.

Although District 24 mounted the most direct challenge to the Rainbow Curriculum, many districts “accepted” it only with the provision that references to gays and lesbians be moved to the sixth grade. They were actually engaging in a little bureaucratic finesse, since no sixth-grade multicultural curriculum is yet in the works. And once District 24 rose up in revolt, a number of other districts rolled back their original, apparently fatalistic acceptance. In Staten Island, one district meeting was attended by a thousand angry parents, an unheard-of number for these usually tedious affairs. (It was front-page news in the Staten Island Advance but went unreported in the citywide papers. )

Much of the opposition came from the very minorities whose multicultural heritage the Rainbow Curriculum was supposed to honor. District 29, which covers a mostly black community adjacent to the infamous District 24, rejected the guide early on, but this went largely unremarked by the chancellor’s office and the press. Olivia Banks, then vice president of the district board, said that during one packed meeting, after listening to a long line of anxious parents speaking out against the curriculum, a policeman standing guard was moved to add his own objections. Banks, like many other blacks and Hispanics who had fought hard for a multicultural curriculum guide, was deeply offended by the curriculum’s implicit premise that the gay and lesbian lifestyle is the equivalent of a culture with a long history and tradition.

In December 1992, when Fernandez forced a confrontation by suspending District 24’s board for refusing to institute the Rainbow Curriculum, he was overruled by a unanimous vote of the central board, with even mayoral appointees McCall and Matthews opposing him. (Reyes, the Manhattan representative, abstained.) Two months later, when his contract came up for renewal, it was clear that the chancellor was in deep trouble with a broad range of his constituents. A Daily News poll found that a majority of New Yorkers didn’t believe lessons about gays should be included in an antibias curriculum at all; only 13 percent favored such lessons in the first grade. Fernandez had reluctantly removed the most explicit books, including Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate, from the first grade reading list, but that was too little, too late. The Daily News found that those who supported him were lukewarm, while those who opposed him were passionate.

Queens Borough President Claire Shulman—whose appointee, Carol Gresser, was viewed as the swing vote on Fernandez’s contract renewal—said her office was besieged with angry phone calls demanding Fernandez’s ouster; the small number of calls in his favor, however, were seconded by pressure from First Deputy Mayor Norman Steisel, former Deputy Mayor Bill Lynch, Assembly Speaker Saul Weprin, developer and Cuomo advisor Meyer Frucher, and business leaders like Felix Rohatyn, Eugene Lang, and Reuben Mark of Colgate-Palmolive. “The snobbery in Manhattan is not to be believed,” Shulman was quoted as saying. “They give us in the boroughs no credit for any thinking, just evil intentions.”

Indeed, Fernandez and his allies in the press, the political class, and the Manhattan-based advocacy groups continue to narrate the story in their own cynical terms of intolerance, ignorance, and political maneuvering. Two days after Fernandez’s ouster, one report in the Times about Queens acknowledged that most parents were happy to see the chancellor go, but devoted most of its attention to his supporters, including a parent who condescendingly explained that Fernandez’s opponents were motivated by “fear of crime and a sense of powerlessness, mixed with haunting memories of simpler, safer times.”

Echoing a common theme, Deputy Chancellor Stanley Litow attributed Fernandez’s ouster to “politics: mayoral, Queens, and religious.” The political analysis was quite one-sided, however: The press repeatedly accused Segarra and Staten Island representative Michael Petrides of following the signals of mayoral candidate Rudolph Giuliani, but hardly anyone mentioned Carl McCall’s far more obvious fealty to the mayor. A Times editorial about Fernandez’s ouster was entitled “Fire the Board of Education.” “What New York City’s schools and its students need most are people at the top who are capable of focusing on real issues,” the editors preached. The system, according to the Times, “does not need micromanagers swept this way and that by the political currents of the moment.” The Times, in a strange turn of logic, branded as political cronies the four board members who resisted the intensive lobbying of the mayor’s office, the press, business leaders, and powerful politicians—including, in the case of Segarra and Petrides, the borough presidents who appointed them.

The battle over Fernandez’s policies and the coalition of elites that supported him have their roots in a long history of educational reform. The idea of the educator as social worker or doctor to a sick society took root in the early decades of this century, at the same time as urban schools were becoming increasingly centralized and bureaucratized. For all its idealism, this frame of mind has always imbued in school bureaucrats the illusion that they are “experts” who understand the needs of children in a way that ordinary citizens—including parents and teachers—cannot fully appreciate.

This arrogance surfaced when members of the Board of Education expressed concerns about some of the details of Fernandez’s AIDS education program. “Joe Fernandez’s program was accepted for presentation by an international AIDS conference in Amsterdam,” one of the chancellor’s spokesmen pontificated in an interview with Newsday’s Gail Collins. “Everything we have to say about this subject is considered sacred by everyone outside this board.” Fernandez and his spokesmen displayed the same hubris in their dismissive refusal to take seriously parental objections to teaching their children to “respect” homosexuals. In labeling the opposition the “religious right,” Fernandez branded parents, particularly those with strong religious beliefs, as unenlightened and backward. This view has its precedent in turn-of-the-century reform efforts, in which, as Christopher Lasch has written, “educators and social reformers saw that the family, especially the immigrant family, stood as an obstacle to what they perceived as social progress.” Some of those reformers, Lasch continued, “had a low opinion of American parents and hoped to counteract their influence . . . through elaborate programs of sex education in the schools.”

The struggle to free New York City schools from a bureaucracy perceived as remote and elitist was supposed to have been fought many years ago in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville battle that pitted minority parents and organizations against the central school bureaucracy. The 1969 decentralization law that came out of that struggle led to the current structure of the school system: a seven-member central school board and 32 local districts which, per the United Federation of Teachers, have no say in the hiring and firing of teachers but a great deal of power in choosing superintendents and—this seems to have been forgotten—the curriculum and textbooks. In theory, decentralization was meant to inspire greater community involvement by increasing local power and diminishing a centralized bureaucracy too large and sluggish to respond to local needs. In practice, decentralization has only proven that the Board of Education has the density and staying power of the pyramids, as Jason Epstein wrote in the New York Review of Books during the Ocean Hill-Brownsville days. At that time, the board had 3,000 employees; in 1989 the “decentralized” board had 4,800. (Fernandez says he reduced that number to a still staggering 3,590.)

It should surprise no one that the in-name-only decentralization that evolved out of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis has caused history to repeat itself 25 years later. Once again, parents have revolted against a remote and alien power, beholden to interest groups, that continues to control the education of their children. Whereas the earlier conflict centered on race and ethnicity, class and geography formed the great divide in the overthrow of Fernandez. In Queens, for instance, the vocal opposition to the chancellor included traditional white ethnics, Hispanics, blacks, and newly arrived Russian immigrants. Ironically, the Rainbow Curriculum, itself a testament to the assumptions about cultural identity first popularized during urban crises of the 1960s such as Ocean Hill-Brownsville, has exposed new alignments and schisms that confound those very assumptions. A Latino speaker during a demonstration against the AIDS education program provides a case in point. “Black and Latino children are being used,” he declared. “They are always using us.” The “they” he was referring to were no longer predominantly white and Jewish administrators, as in 1968, but a highly integrated group including a leader who was himself Latino. It appears that the system molds its leaders and workers, whatever their color or ancestry.

Critics of decentralization have justifiably pointed out that too many local boards treat their districts like “vassal states,” as Fernandez has put it. Cronyism, corruption, and bullying are rampant; voter turnout in school board elections remains low. The chancellor was acting responsibly, for example, when he suspended District 9 in the Bronx for theft, drug-dealing, extortion, and mismanagement. Still, if decentralization has failed the test of time, it may be because the test itself was flawed. Individual schools and community districts were given scant discretion over the budget allocated by 110 Livingston; on other matters as well, they are tied in a knot of bureaucratic regulations. It is symbolic of the contradictions inherent in this arrangement that many believe the only hope for the supposedly decentralized schools is a great and powerful chancellor.

The bitter departure of Joseph Fernandez, brought about by an unmanageable system as well as by his own obstinacy, marks an opportunity to rethink this position. New York City has gone through five chancellors in ten years. Since decentralization, the schools have had 11 chancellors whose terms ranged from two months to five years. The chances are minimal that the next chancellor will be able to change this trend, for the city school system is simply too big to be governed centrally. To set its size in some perspective, consider the following: It is bigger by half than the second-largest system, Los Angeles, and twice as large as Chicago, the third-largest. Some of the local districts have as many students as midsized cities such as Rochester and Baltimore, and a separate Brooklyn district would itself be the fourth-largest in the country. Richard Halverson, a former deputy chancellor, puts it in the most mind-boggling terms: “Aside from the military, the New York City school system is probably the largest management enterprise in a democratic state.”

Ignoring the fundamental unmanageability of such an enormous system, many politicians have focused on tinkering with the structure of the seven-member central board (or, perhaps, on punishing its members). Governor Cuomo, Mayor Dinkins, Robert Wagner Jr., Felix Rohatyn, and the Times have all called for more mayoral control of the board. Dinkins wants an 11-member board with six mayoral appointees; others have suggested giving the mayor four of nine appointments. Complicating any reform efforts is the teachers’ union’s reluctance to hand over so much power to the mayor as well as the morass of politics in the State Legislature, which would have to approve any structural changes.

Proposals for more mayoral control are flawed for several reasons. For one thing, it is not clear why a board is necessary at all if it is merely handmaiden to the mayor. Ninfa Segarra has pointed out that in the budget crisis of 1990 the board and the chancellor argued passionately against the draconian cuts demanded by the mayor’s office. She estimates they were able to muster an additional billion dollars for the schools in that particular setto. In addition, far from clarifying where the buck stops, more mayoral control would only further mystify accountability. Would parents really hold the mayor responsible for custodial problems or cafeteria inefficiency, not to mention a controversial curriculum, in a school in Elmhurst, Queens, or Sunset Park, Brooklyn? But the biggest problem is that proposals to centralize power further ignore the populist lesson implicit in the fall of Fernandez. Mayoral control would only paper over the essential incoherence of a system meant to serve almost a million geographically, ethnically, and racially diverse students. In the conflicts that hastened Fernandez’s fall, for instance, a mayoral plurality would not have acknowledged the frustrations of the parents in the outer boroughs. Rather, it would simply have denied their existence, rather like shutting a noisy, less-favored child in the closet.

No matter what the structure of the board, given the enormity of the system and the political pressures and recalcitrance which stem from its size, any strong new chancellor is ultimately doomed to fail. The chancellor of the New York City public schools is asked to work inside an insoluble contradiction—to beat the system and represent it simultaneously. Fernandez’s own gutsy innovativeness, which allowed him to challenge the system in constructive ways, also propelled him to suspend a district board, not for corruption or ineptitude but for disagreeing with him. In the same vein, Fernandez’s highly touted plans for school-based management may well fail because of the ambiguity of central and local control: Although much of the power of shaping a school’s ethos and structure is supposedly given to its teachers, the central board seriously limits their independence by holding the purse strings, setting many of the rules, and operating a remote curriculum department.

Fernandez’s ouster dramatizes how the huge, centralized city school system has become a battleground for political and ideological interest groups and a stage for the city’s media circus, at the same time as it is puffed up with its myth of sociological expertise. It is, quite simply, alienated from the people it serves. It is impossible to believe that a new chancellor will be able to negotiate all this when “Super Joe”—who had the full support of the press, politicians, and, initially, the public—failed so miserably. Instead of saying, in effect, “The king is dead; long live the king,” New Yorkers need to follow this revolution to its logical conclusion, remaking the system in a way that recognizes the need for more public involvement and direct lines of accountability. Small, autonomous units of gover- nance seem the only solution. The day after the board voted not to extend Fernandez’s contract, Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger met with her ideological opponent, Queens representative Carol Gresser, to discuss the possibility of breaking the system into independent, borough-wide districts. These unlikely allies are moving in the right direction.


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